How to prioritise digital marketing activity more effectively

Written by David Somerville - 25 Nov 2020

Following on from our recent webinar on 'How to prioritise digital marketing tactics', our strategist team of David Somerville, Duncan Heath and Nate Wood have put their thoughts together around four key topics related to digital marketing tactics and how to maximise reward and effort.

The benefits of prioritising digital activity

We feel there are seven key benefits of prioritising digital tactics, these being:

  • Increases productivity: by knowing what tactics you need to work on and in which order, you can work through them more effectively without having to stop and think about what to do next
  • Improves team focus and output: as well as providing a focus for you individually, prioritisation can help the whole team or department to see what needs doing and when. This naturally leads to a much better sense of collaboration and level of output
  • Makes the best use of available resources: for many digital marketing teams, resources, in the form of people and budgets can be limited. The exercise of prioritisation means you put this at the front of our minds and work on the things that can be most realistically achieved
  • Helps your business case for more budget: related to the point above, prioritising tactics means you are in theory now working on the right things that will drive the most impact
  • Removes obsolete ideas: the adage is, “there’s no such thing as a bad idea”, which is true to an extent. However, some ideas should be saved for another time as they are just not as impactful as others
  • Helps get executive leadership buy-in: having a clear and visible prioritised plan means that people from across the organisation, including senior and executive teams, can see exactly what’s been worked on and know that it’s the tactics deemed to be the most important
  • Makes work more enjoyable: this is less tangible from a business point of view, however, is important. If you are working on the most important things, then this can help you to get much more satisfaction back. This is reinforced when you see the right tactics having much more of an impact. Also, a clear, prioritised list reduces the stressful element of “are we working on the right things?” 

Headshot of June Robinson

“Prioritisation is a topic that comes up regularly when I talk to clients and prospects. There is so much pressure on digital teams and I know it's a recurring challenge for many on a daily basis.”

June Robinson, Business director

Common challenges for digital teams with tactic prioritisation

Webinar registrants shared the following statements when asked 'What is your biggest challenge around prioritising tactics?'

  • When urgent issues come out of nowhere
  • Knowing what meaningful metrics should you always track and why?
  • What to focus on?
  • Too many things to do and getting pulled into too many things
  • Too many campaigns targeting similar audiences at the same time
  • Time management!
  • Skillsets and focuses of individual team members are not broad enough to provide a shared understanding of the metrics used to attribute success to any given tactic
  • Sheer volume of things to do
  • Resource planning
  • Providing business case around spending in the early days of testing
  • Projects vs BAU / Top of hierarchy request vs different divisions / Only recently introduced a priority framework (based on effort/impact score) but small tickets taking too much time
  • Old non-optimal website hindering progress
  • Methodology and task management in a 360 environment
  • Managing strategically important projects with tactical projects that interest/retain team members.
  • Lots of conflicting priorities outside of the marketing department with several campaigns from different departments.
  • Lack of time, spread too thin, management who don't always buy-in to the long term strategy
  • Lack of time, resources and budget to spend on effective planning
  • Know which channels will perform the best and therefore which to prioritise
  • It's more of a challenge for my direct reports, who work at the tactical level
  • Identifying which are the most valuable tasks to put my time into before putting the time into them
  • How to deal with too many tasks
  • Getting different teams to buy into our expertise
  • Deciding what will add the most value to the business
  • Coordinating multiple people providing content
  • Context/circumstances changing and having to readjust
  • Conflicting demands/reporting
  • Competing priorities from different areas of the business
  • Client choices vs my team's recommendations

We haven't got the time for prioritisation, planning and the execution of tactics

David: It's a common response that I hear, and sadly is often the case. People get sucked into having to ‘get stuff done’ and therefore lack time for the planning and prioritisation. 

However, finding the time to do this properly – involving the right people at the right time – will mean that you might even have a positive impact on your future time. Prioritising your activity should mean that you work on the important and impactful stuff, plus build in time for future planning and prioritisation. 

One way to make time for this reset, which might sound a bit extreme, is to book yourself out as being ‘on holiday’, but instead you’re spending the time doing your prioritisation and planning. This should give you the headspace and the lack of distractions you need. 

Also having a proven methodology and framework in place for your prioritisation will mean it’s much quicker to do, as you won’t spend time starting from scratch.

Headshot of David Somerville

“One of our biggest issues is teams working separately on their own activities, albeit with the best intentions, but without an appreciation of how this impacts other work or where efficiencies could be found.”

David Somerville, Digital strategist

Nate: About 99% of the teams that I work with don’t track or analyse their time utilisation. Not one of the teams has “spare” time, everyone is working hard, often with long hours. But when you analyse that time used, a lot of that time is spent on the “work of doing work”. Meetings, reporting, admin, emails, email and then more emails. The work that might add the most amount of value to performance will often get pushed aside. 

Time trackers are a pain in the backside, and no one likes to do them. However, businesses are run on a straightforward principle – money is exchanged for the time in the expectation that time will be used for work to generate more money. Very simple, but when you put it like this, you start to see the relationship clearer between time and money. Time is money, as the saying goes, but it’s rarely accounted for in the same way. 

Time trackers, when used as a positive analysis tool, can be a really effective way of drawing attention to those areas of work for which the value vs time expense is out of balance. They enable you to take positive steps such as identifying training needs to improve effectiveness, efficiency actions such as proper meeting etiquette and preparation or less email, more use of Slack. 

One thing I’ve seen time and again is that when teams are under pressure, they default back to the easiest or most comfortable work. Time impact goes down. There are lots to do, so let’s crunch through these easy things over here before taking on the harder ones. This can be where an open culture of being able to ask for help and a culture of good coaching can help people take on tasks that are a challenge, even when they might be under pressure.

Duncan: A lot of companies I speak to don’t have time to create and manage a proper activity prioritisation system because they’re too busy working on activities, which they often acknowledge probably aren't a priority. This is the definition of a false economy - short term gain of getting some activities done faster, but certainly, long term pain when you don’t work on the right things.  

Firstly, I’d recommend setting aside dedicated time each week to review your priority activities as a team. Protect this time with your life; it’s sacred.  

Don’t be afraid to pause activity if it’s no longer a priority, even if you’ve invested time in it already. ‘Unit bias’ says people want to complete a task or fulfil an objective, even when there are more valuable things to focus on. Keeping items on your task list as a result of this bias, whilst also trying to complete new actual priority activities leads to overload.  

Lastly, most teams I work with try and do too much. How many of you would say you have too much to do right now? Probably most. This is mad. Everyone has a finite amount of time, so how can it be that you have too much to do? What this actually means is that expectations around how much you can do vs what you can do in reality are misaligned. These can be expectations of others, but quite often they’re intrinsic expectations as well. The solution to this is, do fewer things that make a tangible difference.

That’s easy for me to say when your boss expects everything done by yesterday, but do it as a test. Take on less. Overestimate the time it will take you to do something. Try and focus on one thing a day rather than five. I bet you’ll find the quality of your work will increase, you’ll start to see the wood for the trees, and you’ll be more impactful. You’ll also start to focus more on the actual priorities, rather than the nice-to-do's, which will no longer fit in your bucket. When you extrapolate this idea out to larger teams, the impact is even greater. Everyone doing less paradoxically produces more.

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Our teams are working on activities in silos

Nate: To add to this point, I have seen examples of where politics creates silos. More often than not, silos are created by a disjoint in communication or process. Sometimes, though, they are caused by a lack of direction or defensive/protective behaviour. I have seen this on multiple occasions. Sometimes, it arises out of a lack of confidence and a need to control every aspect. Sometimes, a person has an ambitious game plan or a particularly prickly personality. The outcome is the same – a choice to be less cooperative.  

These types of scenarios are made worse by poor overall management that allows this to happen. Poor management that doesn’t provide clear delineation can sometimes cause people to “land grab” and stake their claims, and then to protect them. 

I’m often really surprised by how much the human element of working or the needs of people in their roles are neglected. People define themselves heavily by the work that they do. One of the standard small talk questions is “what do you do?”. It’s a fundamental piece of who we are.

So if your standing in the work community is threatened, it’s not surprising that some people can become incredibly defensive. This is especially important given what’s happened through this year. I think people will be more conscious than ever on their standing within an organisation. Everyone has a status that needs to be acknowledged.

Delineation, clearly defined roles and responsibilities and solid managerial oversight and a fair arbitrage process can help. A good coaching culture that promotes people resolving their differences, but which has mechanisms in place to support that, can also really help. Some people cannot handle confrontation; others thrive on it! All too often, I think departments are left to duke it out. 

Headshot of Nate Wood

“I’ve personally experienced a scenario where a land grab was allowed to happen by poor managerial oversight, to the point where an entire duplicate of my European team was allowed to be resourced and set up in the US by a very ambitious person who wanted to make SVP. ”

Nate Wood, Digital strategist

Duncan: What I find interesting about silos is that it’s often reported as a problem by stakeholders at all levels of an organisation and in all departments. This means it’s not awareness or motivational problem – no one wants to be siloed or believes it’s not a big enough problem to solve. It’s the opposite in fact – everyone typically knows how important it is.   It’s more of an opportunity and capability problem – the systems and processes in place either don’t allow for or encourage integration and often siloed teams don’t know how best to start breaking down walls or even where to start.  

For me, transparency is key to unlocking the door of integration. You may have heard of the ‘Curse of Knowledge’ bias? It isn’t easy to understand how much or how little others know about something that we do, so we tend to overestimate other’s knowledge and assume they have the background to something when often they don’t. This leads to people not sharing enough information and even not understanding when why they’re being asked for it.  

If people in a team, department or wider organisation don’t know what others are working on, or just planning to work on, this seriously restricts integration opportunities.  

At Fresh Egg, we commonly recommend that everyone organises and manages their activity in the same place, which is easily accessible to all. This needs to be a collaborative workspace but can be as simple as a spreadsheet on SharePoint (one of my biggest clients does it this way currently) or using a tool like Trello or Airtable. Each team can have their own area within the central space, such as a tab on a spreadsheet, but the key is that anyone can see what their BAU activity looks like, what is next up on their priority list and what activity is in-play.  

You’d be amazed at how much integration starts happening naturally once everyone is simply aware of what others are doing and can start speaking to them about it.

David: Siloed teams can have big detrimental effects on any organisation, with negative results seen in: 

  • Wasted time, with the effort being spent on the wrong things or even effort being duplicated
  • A lowering of the morale of people 
  • Less impact from activity than should be the case
  • Wasted budgets – for example, with two teams spending on the same thing or the wrong thing 

A classic example of siloed working is when teams prioritise their own activity in isolation, but this isn’t done in conjunction with other teams or departments. As a result, everyone is going in different directions, and the organisation fails to achieve its overall objectives.  

A solution is to have a clear top-down set of goals and objectives AND joined up prioritisation across the teams. Why not appoint someone with the role of ensuring that all the different priorities for the teams are joined up.  

Often it is ‘bad communication’ that contributes to the negative effect of siloed teams, which can be fixed by ensuring there is regular communication between the right people at the right times. This can be as simple as inviting someone into your prioritisation sessions or attending other team meetings to present your plans. 

With our current change in working, I have seen siloes developing even more in some companies. There is even an increase in individuals becoming siloed from colleagues in their own team. The potential impact on morale and mental health is something we all need to be aware of right now.

We’re not forecasting or measuring the impact of activities effectively

Duncan: A quote I wheel out all the time is one from Admiral Grace Hopper, one of the first computer programmers. She said - “One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions”. This is relevant in a lot of scenarios, and none more so than prioritisation. One of the best ways to gain increased confidence and buy-in into your prioritisation scoring methodology is by measuring the impact of your activity, and then using the insight gained to feed directly back into your prioritisation again. This is a very tight closed-loop feedback mechanism, and I assure you it works well.  

To give you an example, a client we work with recently found great success from a priority split test we ran for them. One of the first things we did when the test concluded was to go through any related optimisation ideas in their backlog and reprioritise them to up weight them based on the new learnings. We also added top-line results against the completed activity and some relevant observations to the notes against the other planned activities.  

Suddenly, this prioritised plan of activity gained more credibility and integrity, and there has since been an increased appetite to use it to guide future activity.

Headshot of Duncan Heath

“Don’t make your prioritisation approach and your measurement approach two separate things that happen in isolation. Make them the same thing. Record the results and the impact of those results in your prioritisation space and close that feedback loop as quickly as possible.”

Duncan Heath, Digital strategist

David: If I think about a classic marketing process – with discovery, planning, execution and measurement – it's often the measurement stage that is missing. 

Either this is not considered right at the start, or it is forgotten in the excitement of getting the campaign or activity launched.  

The simple way to make sure you are doing this is to build it into your planning – have it visible in your project timelines or campaign plans and make sure there is time for it allowed. 

Also, it would help if you considered WHAT you could measure in terms of the impact – one tip would be to consider using a measurement framework for a campaign, project or group of activities. This is a simple framework that outlines what you are trying to achieve (objectives), what the main things are that will indicate whether you’ve done that (your KPIs) and what specific factors will be used to measure that (your metrics).

Nate: Long-term vs short-term. It’s tough to rationalise the long-term if an organisation is very short-term focused. Quite often, I see this enacted where organisations stop spending money on brand awareness, diverting funds into lower funnel more direct response channels because that’s where the immediate value comes from. However, they then struggle over subsequent periods as the top of the funnel dries up and their ability to remain effective at the bottom of the funnel gets tougher and tougher. 

A key for me, here, is to translate long-term objectives into short-term ones. For example, increased reach and awareness of brand may increase brand familiarity, improving overall brand consideration and impacting conversion rate. This, in turn, bolsters short-term sales results. 

The trick for me is knowing when data is helpful and when it’s a hindrance. Multiple studies over time have shown the importance of brand awareness to sales, but sometimes you cannot line up a piece of long-term brand awareness directly with a particular month’s sales performance. So the trick for me is knowing when to look for correlation rather than direct connection and causation. Can I see, through experimentation, that stopping one set of activity leads to a decline in another? The problem with this, though, is that long-term is just that and seeing that correlation may take a while. 

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that business owners know their business and its ebbs and flows far better than I do. Sometimes you have to listen to their gut feel and knowledge that comes from anecdotal observation rather than hard and fast data. Marketing is both an art and a science, and I think digital built a foundation that relies on science too much sometimes. 

Our team doesn’t have the ownership, accountability and motivation to keep on top of prioritisation

David: Motivating your team to feel like they should be accountable and have ownership of prioritisation can be difficult – especially when we consider the earlier point around people having a lack of time. 

For me, it’s all about getting them involved in the process as early as you can. Invite them to ideas brainstorming, ask for their input into the prioritisation and then assign people to look after different areas.  

I feel that if people are bought into the whole process of prioritisation then they are much more likely to stay motivated.

Nate: For me, this comes down to ringfencing the time. It’s hard to stay motivated to think about the bigger picture when the smaller picture is continually nipping at your heels daily. As the saying goes: “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Sometimes it’s easier to jump in and do something than to leave it squeaking. There’s always tomorrow. The problem is that: there’s always tomorrow. Before you know it, a year of tomorrow’s has passed, and you’re back into annual planning for next year. 

Proper planning of the investment of resources is at the heart of a lot of the issues we’ve discussed today, and I think proper resource planning requires dedicated ring-fenced time. That time needs to be sacrosanct. Without that effort to ensure that time is well invested in work that will yield the greatest impact, then you naturally fall into a reactive working practice, which is stressful, not very rewarding and ultimately demotivating. 

This means that culturally planning and prioritisation need to be treated as important from the top down and led by example.

Key takeaways

  • Adopt a prioritisation methodology that works for you and make sure everyone knows how to use it 
  • Obstructions to integrated working should be identified and managed accordingly. Obstinate, uncooperative behaviours should be properly acknowledged and resolved. 
  • It helps to have an arbitrage process to resolve prioritisation conflicts across departments rather than leaving those departments to battle it out. It should not be the case that the team that shouts loudest gets their way. 
  • Where a solid data connection doesn’t exist, don’t be afraid to use correlation or gut feel as a value metric. These are better than not assigning any value to work. If work honestly adds no value in any way, then it should be removed. Why waste time on work that you cannot even loosely attribute value to? 

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